On Authors and the First-Book-Favourite Phenomenon

So a lot of people over the last ten years or so have had to suffer getting to the end of Firefly and going, “Wait, that’s it?”

If you personally haven’t or don’t like Firefly, fair enough. (I suspect this is becoming an outdated reference, anyway.) But there’s a real feeling there—the feeling that you’ve come to the end of something delightful far too soon, that you were on an awesome journey and you’re ready to run miles more but the dead-end sign is sudden and unforgiving.

I think this is how a lot of people feel when they come to the end of a good book and there isn’t anything else by the same author, or the next book in the series isn’t out yet (or when they find really good chaptered fanfiction that isn’t finished and might never get updated again—a particular misery I know well). And as a person who lately reads a lot and reads pretty fast, this is a familiar feeling for me.

And I say all of this about a feeling to talk about its opposite: the feeling of discovering something that you love and then finding out there might be more of it. (I have a favourite fanfic author in a particular fandom who is ridiculously prolific and it is the best thing of life.) And that’s the feeling I get whenever I read a book I really like and then realize the author has written other books—bonus points if they’re in the same genre or series or published after what I’ve just finished reading, but really I’m not that picky.

It’s awesome to realize that the author you like has all this other material for you. But it is also, in a way, non-awesome: because that thing you love, that book that was the first thing you read by them, has set up expectations that might be unreasonably high.

I don’t know why this is, exactly, but in a lot of cases, the first book I read by an author will be my favourite, the one I always go back to. I’m not the only person this happens to, and this isn’t the only form of media in which this happens. (Think about the sheer amount of people who will always insist a band’s first album is their best.)

Is it because when we hear about an author, it tends to be because of their most famous book, the one that we might reach for first? Did that book get all the hype because it’s actually their best work? Is it because the first book, by the simple merit of being the first we read by that author, makes us read everything else in comparison? Are we unable to appreciate differences (even good differences) because we’re in the frame of mind to read more of the same stuff that we loved? Is it because that first book is related to a time and place in our real life that calls up some nostalgia for us? Is it a sense of nostalgia in general? (A lot of things look better in the haze of pastness.) Is it all or none of these things, or are there questions I’m missing? (Probably.)

This isn’t always the case, of course. I started reading David Levithan through Will Grayson, Will Grayson in an attempt to finish reading all of John Green’s books. (I probably won’t, because I took issue with Looking for Alaska and I’ve heard Paper Towns has similar problems. As per usual, the first book I read, The Fault in Our Stars, is still my favourite.) Afterwards, I picked up The Lover’s Dictionary, which I liked more. And then Two Boys Kissing, which I might have liked even more than that (though I haven’t decided yet).

(In all fairness, I obviously came to Levithan sort of sideways, with a book he co-authored. But in double fairness, possibly his most famous book, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, is also co-authored.)

But the first-book-favourite phenomenon is usually the case, and it’s something that I’m curious to examine. Is Eleanor & Park actually Rainbow Rowell’s best book, or did I make it so for myself by reading it first? It’s not as if I don’t see flaws alongside the loveliness of that particular novel, and maybe that’s the issue in my case, at least—I’m an editor, so even in books I really enjoy, I find some could-be-betters alongside the things I like. (It’s probably why my reviews of things I enjoyed still often read as a bit negative and nitpicky.) And it’s likely that as I read through an author’s spectrum of writing, I’m looking for that golden egg, something that will hatch their potential beyond what I’ve read already, something that illuminates all their strengths and glides over their flaws. It’s often why, if I really like someone’s work, I’ll look for something published after what I’ve read rather than before.

(J.K. Rowling is a good example of someone improving over time, as her progress/changes are obvious as Harry Potter goes on and the protagonist growing up somewhat unintentionally obscures this, although it can still feel a little disjointed if you read the whole series then start back at the beginning. And yeah, I use Harry Potter references always, because it has to be as close as I can get as a young adult/genre book geek to saying something universal.)

I wonder how often the first book we read by an author is our favourite and if we can ever get over the biases that won’t allow it to be supplanted. I often debate with myself whether I prefer Kushiels Dart to all of Jacqueline Carey’s other books, and I’m never exactly sure if it’s true. I generally feel like the Naamah’s Kiss trilogy might actually appeal to me more, as I quite appreciate the rougher-around-the-edges Moirin and her various love interests, and Santa Olivia is also an excellent read (I still have to get around to Saints Astray, among other books by Carey—and many others), but I still read Kushiel’s Dart every year around Christmas time. And maybe I have to accept that it has still left the biggest impression, and although it may not be the best single book, it will always have a special place with me.

(Trilogies or larger series provide a bit more leeway, perhaps, since they make it easier to appreciate the differences from the first thing. For most people, their favourite Harry Potter book isn’t the first one, since it certainly isn’t the best from most perspectives that aren’t nostalgic.)

In any case, this is a phenomenon I intend to investigate by reading everything written thus far by some authors, and seeing how my opinions align with criticism of those books and how often my first-book-favourite seems like a logical choice or an unusual one. I’ll keep you in the loop about it. I’m a small sample group, of course, so feel free to let me know how often this happens with you (and why it seems to).

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